The third film in any long-running series is usually the point at which the franchise becomes acutely self-aware. Having settled comfortably into a formula but needing to up the ante a bit to keep things fresh and lively, the producers of most big film franchises will typically feed the audience a heaping, smirking dose of what it expects from an entry in the series and trade engaging storytelling for bigger set pieces and less-than-subtle winks to the loyal fans. The filmmakers rest on their laurels, the actors ham it up and coast through the all-too familiar motions, and the viewer gets a sub par effort that cost more, took longer, and accomplished less. In most cases, this results in both the third entry and the series as a whole losing their edge and a large portion of their audience. Consider the self-satisfied train wreck that was LETHAL WEAPON 3, or the live-action cartoon known as RAMBO III, or, more recently, the over-inflated and ultimately disappointing SPIDER-MAN 3. In these and many more cases, too much attention was paid to topping the previous entries in the areas of self-referential humor and expensive stunts or special effects, at the expense of the purer plots and characterizations that made the earlier films successful in the first place. But every now and then, a third chapter comes along that uses its unavoidable self-awareness to its narrative and stylistic advantage. Once in a great while, a Part 3 manages to combine larger portions of everything that was good about Parts 1 and 2 with a liberal sprinkling of in-jokes and cheeky asides to create true cinematic magic. In these exceedingly rare instances, trilogies become enduring institutions, stories blossom into full-fledged mythos, and iconic classics are born.
I give you GOLDFINGER.
Following Ian Fleming´s novel fairly closely, the film tells the story of Auric Goldfinger, a charming, ruthless businessman who has spent a lifetime hording gold bullion in preparation for the crime of the century - a daring raid on Fort Knox during which the entire U.S. gold surplus will be irradiated by an atomic bomb blast. British Secret Service agent James Bond is charged with stopping the cunning villain and his murderous Korean henchman, Oddjob, before they succeed in rendering half the world´s supply of the precious metal worthless and become inconceivably rich and powerful. Employing his skills and the incredible gadgets supplied by his service (including an Aston Martin equipped with an ejector seat and machine guns, among other innovations), 007 must charm his way past femme fatales, escape a dank dungeon, win a rigged, high-stakes golf game, survive a fight in a depressurized airplane cabin, and even protect his very manhood from the searing heat of a deadly laser beam.
As that plot synopsis indicates, everything about GOLDFINGER is larger than life. In an early scene, a beautiful girl (Shirley Eaton) lured from the villain´s employ by Bond´s charms is suffocated to death with a coat of gold paint over every inch of her nude body. The mountainous Oddjob can crush golf balls to powder with his bare hands, but his primary weapon is a bowler hat with a steel brim, an instrument capable of literally taking a man´s head off from 50 yards away. Key to Goldfinger´s grandiose scheme is an entire squadron of curvaceous female stunt pilots in skintight flight suits, lead by a gorgeous lesbian named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). The James Bond universe is not known for its subtlety, and GOLDFINGER was really the Big Bang which fully formed that fictional cosmos.
Of course, the shift from straightforward espionage stories to outlandish action spectacles inevitably means sacrificing some logic and credibility. Every 007 leading lady since the early 60s has proclaimed their character stronger, smarter, tougher, and more independent than all of the other Bond girls, but Blackman´s Galore truly lives up to the traditional press conference puffery. Why, then, does this intelligent, self-assured woman toss aside both her moral and sexual inclinations after just one tumble in the hay with Bond? Unlike in the previous two entries, in which the complex plots forced Bond to stay in the dangerous mix long enough for the villain to be exposed, our hero and his government are aware of Goldfinger´s treacherous nature from the start. Despite this, plot contrivances (admittedly, well-structured ones, but still...) are employed to ensure that authorities don´t just swoop in and arrest the guy before he can launch his Operation: Grand Slam. Frankly, the scheme itself is the most improbable element of all, since it hinges on the otherwise meticulous and extremely cautious Goldfinger´s apparent belief that his gold supply will not be immediately seized and he himself hunted to the ends of the earth by every army in the world once Fort Knox is contaminated. Perhaps Goldfinger was the first to subscribe to the contemporary theory that it´s acceptable to attempt a grand-scale armed incursion without giving any advanced thought to a viable exit strategy.
But to quibble about such matters is to miss the point of GOLDFINGER. It isn´t a Cold War spy thriller at all; it´s a fantasy, a contemporary, libidinous, Earthbound BUCK ROGERS aimed not at realism but escaping reality. When director Guy Hamilton and company collectively wink at the audience, it isn´t to offer the kind of desperate "Watch how loud and clever we can be!" plea of movies like LETHAL WEAPON 3, but rather to say with the supreme confidence of Bond himself, "Trust us. Just sit back and enjoy the ride." And unlike the makers of most third episodes, they prove themselves to be quite capable drivers, indeed. GOLDFINGER is a grand and glorious foray into a world that all of us wish we could inhabit, a forerunner to the slick summer epics of today but without any of the cynicism or cold dispassion that makes most trips to the multiplex so forgettable and dreary. It´s a lively, colorful reminder that once in a great while the third time really is the charm.